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Spanish Food Idioms – Con las manos en la masa

Introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms Series:

Inspired by the “Edible Idioms” in French series on Clotilde Dusoulier’s blog Chocolate & Zucchini, I have decided to start the New Year with a new a series on food idioms in Spanish. My focus will be on food idioms used in Spain, where I live and where I have been learning the Spanish language. I would love to hear others’ experiences with food idioms in Spain and in different Spanish-speaking countries, as well.

I find idioms in general fascinating, especially as a learner of a foreign language. In my experience, beginning to understand the colloquial expressions of a place is an essential part of feeling more integrated in the culture. Grasping the figurative meaning of the words in an idiomatic expression is like sharing a wink with the speaker – you are on the inside.

I find culinary idioms particularly fascinating (surprise, surprise), and see these expressions as a means to more deeply understand the history, culture and emotions connected with different foods in Spain.

There is of course another leap to take between understanding idioms to actually using them correctly, and the process can lead to some funny mistakes. This series will thus be a (potentially treacherous) adventure into the figurative realm of the Spanish language through idioms involving food.

Let’s dig in!

Today’s expression: con las manos en la masa

Con las manos en la masa

The phrase literally translates as, “with your hands in the dough.” If you catch someone con las manos en la masa, it is similar to catching them “red-handed,” or, to use the culinary equivalent, “with their hands in the cookie jar.” In all cases, someone has been caught in the act of doing something, usually bad to a greater or lesser extent, at least in the context.

“Imagine a baker we surprise at work. Could he deny he was making bread?” asks Alberto Buitrago, professor of Spanish at the University of Salamanca, in his Diccionario de dichos y frases hechas (2009). The proof, as they say, is in the pudding (once you get started, it’s hard to stop…).

As is the case with the equivalent English expressions, con las manos en la masa is often used in the context of crime. For example: “El ladrón fue pillado con las manos en la masa.” “The robber was caught red-handed.”

However, the expression has come full circle and is also frequently used in culinary contexts in Spain, in which it is both literal and figurative at once (though your hands may be literally covered in dough, the figurative connotation that you are up to something is always present). I think of all the times Manolo has surprised me in the act of making yet another batch of buttery cookies, a guilty pleasure, con las manos en la masa.

In an Internet search for different uses of this expression, I came across a popular cooking show called Con las manos en la masa that ran on Spanish Public Television (TVE) between 1984 and 1991 and is considered a forerunner of the genre in Spain.

When I mentioned this cooking series to friends In Spain, several for whom the 1980s were formative years spontaneously started singing the eponymous title song, a rousing ode to traditional Spanish food performed in duet:

 

The woman’s opening line sounds like a confession, largely due to our expression of the day: “Siempre que vuelves a casa / me pillas en la cocina / embadurnada de harina / con las manos en la masa.” “When you return home / you always catch me in the kitchen / covered in flour / con las manos en la masa.” We get the sense that she’s up to something other than just making an ordinary loaf of bread.

This hunch is confirmed in the man’s response, which tells us the woman has been experimenting with nontraditional cuisine, which is a tad unsavory in the context: “Honey, I don’t want refined dishes, I’m coming from work, I don’t feel like Chinese duck. How about some gazpacho, with cucumber and garlic….” It turns out she’s been taking classes at…gasp!… the Cordon Bleu.

This exchange might sound questionable through a feminist perspective, but ultimately, the mood is lighthearted and that craving for tradition speaks to both men and women, which for me comes through in the joined voices of the chorus, an impassioned list of favorite traditional Spanish dishes: “Papas con arroz, bonito con tomate, cochifrito, caldereta, migas con chocolate, cebolleta en vinagreta, morteruelo, lacon con grelos, bacalao al pil-pil y un poquito perejil….” No fancy dishes for us!

All of these references belong to the connotations of the expression con las manos en la masa in Spain today. I am beginning to feel more complicit already.

A Welcoming Trail of Stews

This is a tale of a village and a spoon, which to me perfectly reflects the spirit of the season.

Cehegín

The village in question, Cehegín, appears in the photo above. I had often admired this perched vista from the highway that connects the city of Murcia with the rugged northwest corner of the region. But until recently, I had never stopped to explore.

And here’s where the spoon comes in. Much to my delight, the day I picked to visit Cehegín, there also happened to be a culinary event, the Puente del Puchero, or Bridge of Stews.

The idea was similar to that of the itinerant Tapas Routes I wrote about several weeks ago. But this time, instead of small plates, participating bars and restaurants were serving mini portions of traditional soups and stews, all dishes meant to be eaten with a spoon, hence the tagline (which I adore), ¡¡Viva la Cuchara!!, Long live the Spoon!

This praise for a simple, comforting and nourishing way to eat seems a perfect slogan for for the times. I chanted these words in my mind (and sometimes out loud) throughout the day, imagining all the bottomless pots of stew gurgling on stove tops throughout the village. This made the quiet streets feel more welcoming and took the chill out of the wind.

Brochure

A bit of history

I love this part of the region of Murcia, both for the striking landscape and for the evocative human history. Cave drawings thought to be over 4,000 years old have been found in the area, as well as traces of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, and, of course, Catholic conquerors. All of these peoples had their reasons for staking a claim on this land, like its geographical advantages (protected caves and extensive lookout possibilities) as well as its strategic importance in terms of religion and politics (often one in the same).

As far as I can gather, none of these people had it easy. Throughout this long history, not only were there marauders and rivals to contend with, but also indiscriminant diseases like the Plague. Nonetheless, the will to survive has left a rich legacy in Cehegín, whose old center was declared Historic-Artistic Site by the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 1982.

Today, tourism is key to the survival of local monuments and traditions, not only in Cehegín, but also in much of rural Spain, which, for me, was extra reason (as if I needed it) to grab a spoon and dig in.

Without further ado, here is our day on the Trail of Stews in Cehegín:

Alubias con perdiz

Our first stop was the no-frills Bar Fernando, which was quiet minus a few regulars who’d stopped by for an aperitivo. We were the only out-of-towners there, but this didn’t seem to make a difference to anyone, and we took a place at the bar without any obvious turned heads. In fact, it took several minutes for the owner to take our order, as he was busy chatting politics with the man next to us who had dropped by alone for a beer and a snack of several fat anchovies drizzled with olive oil. We eventually got to order our puchero, and were served alubias con perdíz, a vibrant stew of white beans, partridge and a good dose of pimentón. The little ceramic bowls made for the occasion were perfect for warming cold fingers.

Olla de cerdo

Our second stop, La Bodeguica (“the little bodega” –ica/-ico is a common diminutive in Murcia, often used instead of the –ita/-ito predominant in the rest of Spain), was more modern in decor than Bar Fernando and also had a younger crowd. An array of creative canapés – mini slices of baguette topped with different meats, cheeses and spreads – displayed on the bar caught our attention, but we decided to stick with the spoon route and were served Murcia’s traditional olla de cerdo, a pork-laden stew which literally (and understandably) translates as “pig pot.” In spite of the small dish, the portion (as you can see), packed with meat, garbanzos and bits of celery, was far from skimpy. I followed Manolo’s lead and stirred the morcilla in with the rest, which gave each spoonful a warm hint of cinnamon and clove.

Cocido con pelotas

We decided we had room for one more stew, so made or way to the Bar-Terraza Cine Alfaro, a little place on the Plaza of the same name in the historic center. We grabbed two stools at the bar, which gave us a direct view into the kitchen and of the walls plastered with photos of the Real Madrid soccer team over the years. Here, they were serving cocido con pelotas, a meatball stew. As evident in the photo, they did not skimp on the goods here either, and loaded our bowls with tender meatballs, chicken, garbanzos, carrot, turnip, potato, and yes, a bit of broth, too. By now, the chill I had felt before my first spoonful of the day was a distant memory.

Tired façade

In between bowls of stew, we visited historic Cehegín, where restoration is a work in progress. Several crumbling corners serve as a reminder that this part of Spain was largely isolated and poor in the grand scheme of history.

Yet thankfully, there are many signs of a growing determination to preserve the town’s architectural heritage, like the lovingly restored 17th century Council Chambers and 18th century Fajardo Palace, which house the Archaeological Museum of Cehegín, pictured below. Here you can see remnants and objects left behind by the different peoples who have called this land home.

Archaeological Museum of CehegínArchaeological Museum of Cehegín 2

These buildings and the display below from the 19th century are evidence of more prosperous times in Cehegín, when certain tables were set with china and silver according to the dictates of royal etiquette. Apparently, all these knives, forks and spoons were for one diner.

Aristocratic dining

The craftsmanship was admirable, yet I found myself asking, who needs all those utensils when all you really need is one big spoon?

Alubias con perdiz 2

Happy Holidays to everyone! Eat lots of soup, and savor tradition, wherever you are!

The Basics:

  • When: This was the second annual Puente del Puchero, and hopefully there will be many more to come. The event takes place around the 8th of December, a national holiday, which, when it falls on a weekday, typically turns into a long weekend, as folks “make a bridge (puente)” to Saturday and Sunday.
  • Where: This event is a joint effort between several villages in Northwest Murcia, so you could easily spend a whole weekend trying different stews. This year, the following villages participated: Cehegín, Moratalla, Mula and Pliego.
  • How: Pick up an event map/guide at a local tourist office or at any of the participating bars, which tells you who’s serving what. This year, the price was 2.50 € for a serving of stew and a drink, which is quite a bargain considering the amount of hearty ingredients that get packed into those little bowls.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

El guiso de trigo es humilde y sencillo, una muestra más de lo mucho que puede lograse disponiendo de poco. (Murcia’s wheat berry stew is humble and simple, yet another example of how much can be achieved with little at hand.)  From Gastronomía Regional Murcia, a newspaper supplement published in the mid-1980s.

Guiso de trigo de Murcia

Like many expats and emigrants, I often rely on foods from my past to nourish connections with people and places far away. This is why, for example, I always have  homemade granola in the cupboard and enough butter and brown sugar to whip up a batch of cookies when a longing for home swoops in. Yet over time, I have also come to crave local foods in Murcia, which I see as a sign of rootedness and contentment in my relatively new home. As the days turn colder and my third winter here begins, I find I am hungry for traditional Murcian stews like the guiso de trigo.

This hearty (and meatless) stew with wheat berries, vegetables and beans is one of Murcia’s staple dishes, whose ingredients reflect the city’s agricultural heritage. For centuries, Murcia has been a center of fruit and vegetable production in Spain, which has resulted in a vegetable-rich cuisine out of necessity.

For me, the guiso de trigo is a perfect example of local culinary thrift, of coaxing maximum nutrition and flavor out of available raw materials. One trick is the sofrito, a building block in many dishes in Murcia as well as in the rest of Spain. By sautéing the onions and tomatoes in olive oil in a separate pan with salt and sweet pimentón – instead of just throwing everything uncooked into the pot with the beans and wheat – you significantly multiply the flavor potential.

A sprinkling of mint, dried or fresh, contributes a cooling contrast to the warming pimentón, which stimulates the senses. Saffron threads, if you have them, are like red lipstick, adding a touch of color and intrigue.

The squash aïoli is a stroke of genius. With four thrifty ingredients – squash (of course), garlic, salt and a ribbon of olive oil – you get a luxurious condiment. Swirling in a spoonful not only adds zing to the stew, but also lends a touch of sophistication, proving that frugal does not have to mean austere.

Even though far more ingredients are available today in Murcia than in the leaner times when the guiso de trigo became a local tradition, the stew remains popular. It can be found on weekday lunch menus in long-established bars and restaurants throughout the city, and commonly appears on grandmothers’ tables. In both settings, it is typically served in wide soup plates with country bread on the side for dipping and soaking up the last traces of broth.

On a cool day like today, when the sun probably won’t quite make its way through the clouds, it is easy to imagine adults and children throughout Murcia hovering over steaming bowls of guiso de trigo. This satisfying stew is not only nourishing and economical, but also familiar and comforting.

I, too, will be having bowl of guiso de trigo today, enjoying the warmth and flavors which root me in Murcia.

Guiso de Trigo de Murcia – Murcia’s Wheat Berry Stew with Squash Aïoli

Adapted from two principal sources: A recipe in the cookbook Memorias de la cocina murciana, written by Carmen Peréz, and a recipe from the Hotel Rosa Victoria in Murcia as seen on the national TV program España Directo in 2009 (you can watch the video here) .

I’ve doubled the quantity of pumpkin in order to make the aïoli and because I love pumpkin. (In other words, the exact vegetable quantities are a matter of taste.)

As the guiso de trigo is a classic peasant dish, real saffron, an expensive ingredient, is not always included, and that is why I say it is optional. Many locals use a natural yellow food coloring, commonly used in paella, because the result is warming and visually appealing. Yet I find that the pimentón and golden olive oil lend sufficient color if you do not use the saffron. The saffron threads of course add complexity to the dish, and I have included them, toasted and mashed with garlic, according to the recipe in Memorias de la cocina murciana.

The key factor in drawing full flavor from the ingredients is time, and all the little steps do make a difference.

For the stew:

1 ¼ cups (250 g) wheat berries, soaked for 24 hours

3/4 cup (150 g) garbanzos, soaked overnight

3/4 cup (150 g) white beans, soaked overnight

10 cups water

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced or grated (*See note)

Salt to taste

1 heaping teaspoon sweet pimentón

A pinch of saffron threads (optional)

1 clove garlic (optional)

1/3 pound (150 g) Italian flat beans, cut into 1-inch pieces measure for cups

1/2 pound pumpkin or other orange-fleshed winter squash like butternut, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks

1 medium potato (a waxy or “in-between” variety would work best – see Cook’s Illustrated Potato Primer)

Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving

For the squash aïoli (ajo calabaza): (Make about 10 minutes before the stew is ready.)

1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

A pinch of fine sea salt

Several chunks of cooked pumpkin from the stew

A swirl of olive oil

For the stew:

Place the soaked and drained wheat berries, garbanzos and white beans together in a large soup pot (I used a 6-quart pot) and add water. Bring to the boil and skim off any foam, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 1 hour. The beans and wheat berries should be partially tender at this point.

While the beans and wheat berries are simmering, prepare the sofrito and the saffron, if using. For the sofrito, heat the 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and just beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes, bring to the boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened, about 25-30 minutes. Add salt to taste toward the end, since the flavor becomes more concentrated as the sauce cooks down. Add pimentón and sauté for another minute. Remove the sofrito from the heat and set aside.

To toast the saffron threads, warm a small, dry skillet over low heat. Add threads and stir frequently so they do not burn. Once the color has deepened and the threads are aromatic, remove from heat. Then pound the toasted threads in a mortar with a clove of garlic. (See here for more information about toasting saffron.)

Add the sofrito and saffron to the pot with the partially cooked wheat berries and beans (after the first hour of cooking), then add the green beans, pumpkin and potato to the broth, which is now a vibrant red color. Season with salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. (If you are using dried mint, add now as well.) Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until the wheat berries, beans and vegetables are fully tender and the broth has slightly thickened, about 45 minutes. If you are using fresh mint, add it now, and adjust seasonings as necessary. Allow to sit off the heat for 5-10 minutes before serving.

For the squash aioli (ajo calabaza):

Ajo calabaza

About ten minutes before the stew has finished, mash a clove of garlic in a mortar with a pinch of salt to make a smooth paste. Remove half of the cooked pumpkin or squash from the pot and pound to a purée with the garlic in the mortar. Stir in a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.

Serve the stew in soup plates garnished with a sprinkling of fresh mint. Add squash aïoli until your bowl has as much garlic flavor as you like.

  • Yield: Six to eight servings.

* NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many cooks I know in Murcia. Cut the tomato in half, and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher skin will not pass through the holes, and you will be left with a tomato purée perfect for sautéing in this recipe.

Soaked Wheat Berries  Soaked Beans  Local Pumpkin Pumpkin Chunks Flat Green Beans Organic Sweet Pimentón from Murcia

A Recipe Worth Frying For: Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña – Eggplant Fries with Dark Cane Syrup

This post is dedicated to my friend Nacho, who inspired me to try this recipe, and who probably thought I had forgotten his request, as well as the jar of cane syrup his sister brought me from Córdoba (jar pictured below). Nacho – you will see why it has taken me so long. Thank you for the syrup, and the inspiration!

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña

These addictive eggplant fries with Moorish roots are most commonly served in Andalucía. They appear in different guises (round and/or battered), but the basic premise is the same, and each enchanting bite is crisp, tender, salty and sweet all at once. The dark cane syrup, akin to molasses, has a slightly bitter edge, which keeps the sweet interesting.

Manolo and I quickly devoured this plateful as an accompaniment to roasted fish for a non-traditional Thanksgiving feast, and boy was I thankful I had dared to try the recipe. This was a test, you see, for my newfound frying mettle.

Dark cane syrup

The truth is, I used to be afraid of frying. My family never did much if any, and as a result, the process seemed mysterious and challenging. How much oil should I use? And how would I know when it had reached the proper temperature? Recipes with instructions to use a thermometer only upped the anxiety. This made frying sound so technical, and, as a result, even more intimidating.

Yet in Spain, frying is a basic technique for most home cooks I know, which has helped make the process seem far less mysterious. By now, I have watched Manolo’s mother Valen fry potatoes countless times, gleaning a bit of the frying intuition she has acquired through years of experience. She has never used a thermometer, and instead, relies on the look and smell of the oil. It’s ready, she says, when the surface begins to stir and the oil is fragrant and just starting to smoke.

Sensing I didn’t fully trust my eyes and nose, Valen also taught me a local trick to test the oil’s temperature, using a curl of lemon zest. When the zest sizzles and begins to brown, she told me, the oil is hot enough for frying. I find this thermometer-free approach gives me confidence.

It will be a while before my inner sensor is as reliable as Valen’s, but it has definitely matured. And as they say, the proof is in the pudding, or, in this case, in the eggplant fries.

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña – Eggplant Fries with Dark Cane Syrup

I consulted a number of recipes in both English and Spanish to write this version, and am particularly indebted to Claudia Roden for her Eggplant Fritters with Honey in the  The Food of Spain, as well as to Anya von Bremzen for her Eggplant “Fries” in  The New Spanish Table.

Several recipes I read suggested soaking the eggplant for one hour before frying to minimize absorption of oil. I tried soaking in beer, as recommended here, and in milk, as Roden recommends. I preferred the milk. The beer-soaked fries seemed slightly more bitter (but still a delicious vegan option), although I did use different eggplants, so my results are far from scientific. First dredging the eggplant in flour also reduces oil absorption.

And the frying itself? Well, knowing what to look for and trusting your senses, there’s really nothing to be afraid of.

In the tapas spirit, you can serve these fries with just about anything. I think they go particularly well with roasted meats, like chicken and lamb, or fish. Add a green salad, and you’ve got what I’d call the perfect meal.

The quantities here are for two people, but the recipe can easily be doubled.

1 medium eggplant (about ¾ of a pound)

1-2 cups milk for soaking

All-purpose flour for dredging

Salt

Olive oil for frying  **SEE NOTE

Dark cane syrup (or a flavorful honey)

Cut the eggplant, peeled or unpeeled, into slices (about 2 1/2” long and 1/3” thick).

Soak the sliced eggplant in a bowl of milk (or beer) for 1 hour. Weight slices down with a plate so they are fully submerged.

Meanwhile, place a generous amount of flour (about ½ – ¾ cup) on a dinner plate and mix with a pinch or two of salt. When you’re ready to fry, drain the eggplant slices and dredge them in the flour, shaking off any excess (I did this with my hands, letting the flour fall between my fingers back onto the plate). Set the floured slices aside on a separate plate.

Line another plate with paper towel for post-frying.

Heat oil, poured to a depth of about 1 inch, in a deep skillet over high heat. (I used a 9-inch skillet and fried in three batches.) When the surface of the oil begins to quiver and starts to smoke, test a floured eggplant slice. If the oil sizzles right away, that means you’re ready to fry. Add a batch of eggplant slices, being careful not to overcrowd the pan, and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 3-5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-high if the eggplant is browning too quickly.

Frying eggplant

Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the paper towel-lined plate to eliminate excess grease. Sprinkle with fine sea salt to taste.

Draining eggplant

Place on a serving plate and drizzle with fine ribbons of cane syrup or honey.

**NOTE: While you can use your choice of oil for frying (like canola or sunflower), the authentic recipe of course calls for olive oil. (See Janet Mendel’s comment on this post).

¡BUEN PROVECHO!

Berenjenas fritas con miel de caña

A Conversation with Spanish Cookbook Author Janet Mendel

Journalist and Cookbook Author Janet Mendel

Photo courtesy of Janet Mendel, http://mykitcheninspain.blogspot.com/

Introduction: When I first moved to Spain nearly three years ago, I had done very little Spanish cooking. Yet, as is the case with many foreigners who land here, it didn’t take long before I was enamored with the food. I soon found myself wanting to learn as much as I could about Spanish cuisine from a range of perspectives, which led me to American journalist and cookbook author Janet Mendel.

Mendel’s Traditional Spanish Cooking was the first Spanish cookbook written in English I bought. I loved how she captured the essence of simple, flavorful and seasonal village cooking from across Spain. The delicious simplicity of the dishes Mendel includes – from satisfying stews like the Asturian bean fabada to classic tapas like clams simmered in garlic-infused sherry – helped me understand why tradition remains so strong in Spanish kitchens today. I was far from the only one to be impressed. In 2010, the UK daily The Guardian selected Traditional Spanish Cooking, published in 1996, as one of the “50 Best Cookbooks of All Time.”

Mendel has lived in a village on the Costa del Sol in Andalucía since 1966, which gives her a true insider perspective. From the beginning, the food – its flavors and stories – caught her attention. On the Profile Page of her recipe-packed blog, My Kitchen in Spain,  she writes,

“During my first year living in a Spanish village, shopping and cooking were a daily adventure. I learned Spanish cooking in  village tapa bars, where I migrated to the kitchen. Intrigued by all kinds of wigglies, squigglies, uglies and unmentionables (squid, octopus, snails, baby goat, bulls’ testicles and more), I tackled the kitchen with the zeal of the investigative reporter.”

In Mendel’s many books, and now on her blog, she takes us along on this journey into Spanish culture and cuisine, giving us a glimpse into the kitchens she visits as well as her own accomplished kitchen.

As you can tell, I have been inspired by Mendel’s work, and was thrilled when she agreed to answer my questions. The interview was done via e-mail, with a follow-up phone conversation. My questions are in bold. Where Spanish words appear in italics, I have provided a translation in parentheses.

AE: One thing I appreciate about your books and blog is your voice. The stories you tell are just as welcoming and giving as all those cooks who have invited you into their kitchens. I particularly feel this in your cookbook My Kitchen in Spain (which is really part memoir, as well). While reading the stories and recipes within, it is as if I have been invited into a Spanish home. I get the sense it hasn’t just been the recipes and flavors that have inspired your writing, but also the generous spirit of all the people you’ve broken bread with in Spain.

You’re absolutely right. In the first place, seeking out recipes was a way to get to know people—village housewives, the guys in the market, the butcher, the baker, the basket weaver. Talking about food gained me entry into homes—and hearts—of the people I was living amongst. Maybe it’s because I am, not a culinary professional, but a reporter. I like telling people’s stories, and those stories often revolve around food. Isn’t that wonderful?

AE: I read that you moved to Spain in 1966, and have lived in a village on the Costa del Sol in Andalucía ever since. This means you have witnessed and experienced breathtaking changes in the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, from a largely poor and rural nation to a first world economy. Yet, in My Kitchen in Spain, in 2002, you wrote that, minus a few new time-saving methods and innovative flourishes, cooking in village homes had changed surprisingly little. What is your outlook on the future of local food traditions in Spain?

Your question inspires me to talk to some of the young mothers in the village. I’ll ask them what they serve their families for dinner, Monday through Friday. My guess is that, although they definitely throw in some of those frozen lasagna or pizza meals, the usual fare is what their mothers served—potaje con garbanzos, lentejas, puchero, pescado frito, sopa de pescado (various soups and stews with legumes like garbanzos and lentils, or fish dishes, like fried fish or fish soup).

There is enormous pride in the local culinary traditions. Excellent bread. Good olive oil. Wonderful fruit. Ham, sausage, cheese. Fresh fish. A wider market for Spanish food means that these products will endure beyond local consumption.

Nevertheless, as people have more spending power, I see that they consume more calories, more sugar-laden foods. Kids used to go off to school with a desayuno (breakfast) of a sandwich with sliced chorizo or potato tortilla. Now the snack might be packaged (sweet pastries or fatty chips). At the same time, there is a lot of current info on TV about good nutrition, so maybe, gradually, bad habits will change.

AE: You have also traveled extensively in Spain, collecting recipes in kitchens throughout the country. I imagine you have spent a fair amount of time visiting the big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, as well. Yet how has living in an Andalusian village in particular shaped your perspective on food and cooking in Spain? 

The Andalusian village kitchen—which I got to know quite intimately—has definitely shaped my perspective on food and cooking. The culinary traditions of other regions I have had to learn on visits. I learn by tasting, first, talking to people, visiting markets.

I am an avid collector of cookbooks in Spanish. They sometimes help to fill in the blanks when I am researching the culinary traditions of regions that I’m less familiar with. I test all recipes in my kitchen and I acknowledge any help I’ve gotten from other cookbooks.

AE: I find that Spain sparks the imagination of foreigners (such as myself) more than many other countries, with its fiestas, boisterous bars, flamenco and siestas. While you have lived here for many years and are a true local, your voice remains one of enchantment with the country and its cooking. I really appreciate that. How do you keep the spark alive?

Perhaps it’s because there are always new “sparks”—a new region to visit (I first visited the Sierra de Aracena, where Jabugo ham comes from, last year and was enchanted by the region); a new food; a new perspective (I enjoy watching Un Pais para Comerselo or José Andres Made in Spain because they give different perspectives); etc. Although the coastal areas (where I live) are overbuilt and congested, Spain continues to amaze and enchant with the diversity of landscapes, monuments, cuisines.

AE: What inspired you to start your blog?

The blog was a way to keep me involved in tasting, traveling, talking to people, trying recipes, exploring food traditions while I was between writing assignments. I was reading other food blogs and realized that there were virtually no blogs (in English) about Spanish food. I’ve got a wide knowledge of Spanish cooking, a huge recipe file and a voice. I hope that the blog generates interest in my cookbooks.

AE: In My Kitchen in Spain, you wrote that patterns of immigration helped to explain why Spanish food was so little known in the United States compared to other foods, such as Italian, French and Chinese. Since then, Spanish food has been steadily growing in popularity in the U.S. On the one hand, there has been all the buzz about Ferran Adrià and Spanish haute cuisine. Yet traditional foods, particularly tapas, have also grown in allure, with advocates such as José Andrés, who has championed Spanish traditions alongside his more avant-garde creations. And then there is Claudia Roden’s new tome, The Food of Spain, an homage to traditional cooking, which has been greeted with critical acclaim in publications like the New York Times. What is your take on this rising popularity of Spanish cooking in the U.S.?

I can only say, it’s high time! Because there was not an immigrant population that opened restaurants, bringing familiarization, Spanish cooking was way behind Italian or Chinese or Mexican. Even now, though Spanish food is growing in popularity, it’s still not widely known. And, even people who buy Manchego cheese at their local deli (I say Manchego is the new Gruyere—the go-to cheese for everything), they may not have the slightest idea that it comes from Spain, from La Mancha.

AE: To wind down, what are some of your favorite kitchen tools? Out of curiosity, do you have a Thermomix?

I don’t actually. Do you? My favorite tool may be a Braun immersion blender. I used it for baby food (38 years ago!) and mayonnaise and gazpacho. I use it almost daily for one thing or another. (Just blended some mangos with non-fat yogurt to make “ice cream.”)

AE: I read in your interview with andalucia.com that you were particularly proud of mastering the bacalao al pil-pil in the process of writing Tapas – A Bite of Spain. That is impressive (the emulsified sauce is notoriously difficult to make)! I’m still taking baby steps with paella. What recipes you are working on now?

Meatballs. Albóndigas en salsa de almendras. I was working on an assignment about Spanish food for a British magazine, with three tapa recipes. One was meatballs. The editor asked if I had any photos, and I realized that I hadn’t made meatballs in years, had no photos in my files. They were delicious, too. Reminds me of what I love about Spanish food—the subtle spicing, use of ground almonds, wine in a sauce. Meatballs will be the next blog.

Don’t be intimidated by paella making! Once you’ve assembled the right ingredients and done the prepping, the cooking is really easy. Remember, the chicken and shrimp are to make flavorful rice. Add boiling stock or water to the rice in the pan and cook on a medium-high heat for the first 8 minutes or so. Don’t stir the rice! Lower heat and cook till rice is tender. Allow to set at least 10 minutes before serving.

AE: What else are you working on at the moment? Do you have any new cookbooks planned?

I’m working on a couple of cookbook proposals, but don’t know if they will come to fruition. Fewer cookbooks are being published. Readership has declined. We shall see. I still love reading cookbooks (yes, Claudia Roden’s is marvellous), but many people look up recipes on the internet rather than in a book.

Thank you so much, Janet!

Murcia’s Ensaladilla Rusa: Not your typical Russian Salad

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Behold the marinera, Murcia’s favorite tapa, which always goes oh so well with that first cold lager. For those non-Murcianos out there reading this, the marinera is a mound of ensaladilla rusa, a creamy potato and tuna salad studded with bits of pickled cucumbers, carrots and olives, served on a looped breadstick and topped with an anchovy. You can also order a marinero, the same base but topped with a tangy vinegar-cured anchovy, a boqueron, instead. If anchovies aren’t your thing, than the anchovy-free bicicleta (yes, bicycle, go figure) is for you.

I’m a definite marinera fan. I love the salty anchovies, and the contrast they give to the sweet and tangy notes of the salad. I also love the challenge of eating a marinera, which takes some practice, and still often results in breadstick fractures that undermine the structural integrity. This is nothing that a few exciting rescue bites can’t solve, however, like swooping in for ice cream that’s about to fall off the cone.

The ensaladilla rusa, Russian Salad, can be found in bars and homes throughout Spain in various forms, the best of which is often, of course, the one made by mamá. Yet I have found that Murcianos are particularly proud of their Russian Salad, and turn up their noses at the cooked peas and carrots, often canned or frozen, typically found in other cities’ versions. I have never tried the ensaladilla elsewhere, but must admit that the other variations sound rather dreary to me, more Siberian, say, than Mediterranean.

Ensaladilla rusa is ubiquitous in Murcia throughout the year, a reliable presence at bars, family meals and gatherings like soccer parties and picnics. It is a comfort food for many, an old standby that never lets down, which, after three years here, it has become for me. After time away, one of the first things I crave is a marinera and a beer (they go hand in hand, after all). I feel almost like a local as I bite in, savoring the now familiar flavors anew.

Ensaladilla Rusa

Murcia’s Ensaladilla Rusa

Jazz up your next potluck with this flavorful twist on the potato salad.

As with many salads, the exact quantity you use of all the ingredients is a matter of personal preference (for example, I like lots of pickles and olives, and often add an extra can of tuna). Some people like to add diced hard-boiled eggs directly to the salad.

In terms of mayonnaise, use your favorite, homemade or store-bought, because you definitely notice the flavor. Hellman’s is the store-bought brand of choice in Murcia, although Manolo says the Hellman’s he’s tried in the US tastes different (not bad, he says, just different).

In Murcia (and in the rest of Spain, too, I think), you can buy the variantes (the pickled bits) pre-chopped in jars or in bulk at farmers’ markets next to the olives. In the US, I have been able to make my own variantes using minced carrots and cornichons (tangy French-style pickles, rather than dill) and their juice (see Cooking Note). *Take note: this step should be done two days ahead, so you can make the salad one day ahead.

Locally made looped breadsticks called rosquillas are used to make the marineras, although I’ve yet to come across any in the States. The circular Italian breadsticks (taralli), which I have seen in Italian markets, would work well, or even crackers. The challenge of the hole in the middle is fun, but the most important element of the breadstick, I would say, is the crunch.

For the salad

4 medium potatoes, peeled, quartered and rinsed in cold water until the water runs clear  – a waxy potato works best, like Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold

1 6-ounce can of solid tuna packed in olive oil, drained and flaked with a fork

1/2 cup variantes (a mix of minced pickled cucumbers and carrots – see Cooking Note)

1/4 cup anchovy stuffed olives, minced, plus more for decorating

3/4 cup mayonnaise, or more to taste, plus more for decorating

3 hard-boiled eggs, for decorating

For the marineras (or marineros or bicicletas)

Circular breadsticks (like taralli), or crackers

Anchovies packed in oil (or vinegar-cured boquerones) (Optional)

For the salad

Place potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and then add salt. Cook at a gentle boil until the potatoes are just cooked through, but not falling apart, about 10-15 minutes (just at the point when the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork). Drain and allow to cool.

Blend the tuna with the potatoes in a large bowl using a fork. The potatoes should break down to a chunky purée in the mixing process. Add the variantes and minced olives and stir until evenly distributed. Slowly add mayonnaise by the large spoonful, tasting once the salad holds together to decide if you wish to add more or not (the salad should not get to the point that it’s runny, however). Smooth out the surface for decorating.

Drop mayonnaise by the spoonful over the salad and spread with a rubber spatula until a thin layer covers the surface. Then grate two hard-boiled eggs evenly over the mayonnaise, resulting in a soft yellow cushion for the final decorative flourishes, several whole olives and one sliced hard-boiled egg. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours before serving. This salad is even more flavorful if prepared a day ahead.

For the marineras (or marineros or bicicletas)

Place a scoop of chilled ensaladilla rusa on a circular breadstick or cracker; lay an anchovy on top.

  •  Cooking Note: To make 1/2 cup of  variantes (pictured below – I know, the lighting is terrible), you’ll need to place roughly 4 tablespoons of minced carrots and 4 tablespoons of minced cornichons in a small bowl and add enough cornichon juice to cover. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use. Make your variantes at least a day before you make the salad so that the carrots are nice and pickled by the time you add them.

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Easy Blender Salmorejo

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After my first velvety spoonful of this chilled tomato soup with a garlic kick, a specialty of  Cordoba, I had to ask, “Salmorejo, where have you been all my life?”

I really couldn’t believe that such a flavorful and satisfying dish made with everyday Mediterranean ingredients was not as well-known around the world as its more famous Andalusian cousin, gazpacho.

Salmorejo, thickened with a good dose of bread, is richer and denser than the more vegetable-packed (and delicious in its own right) gazpacho, which is more like a salad in comparison. Topped with diced egg and serrano ham, salmorejo can easily be served as a main dish, even for hearty appetites.

This soup has never failed to surprise and delight friends and family at home in the States. The bright salmon color engages the eyes; the cool, silky texture pleases the tongue; and the fine balance of flavors – the zing of garlic and vinegar, the sweetness of tomatoes and peppers, and the saltiness of ham – intrigues the taste buds.

I have come to crave salmorejo when the temperatures in Murcia begin to soar, and throughout the summer as tomatoes continue to ripen on their vines. Although the flavors and sensations are now familiar, each new spoonful sings with the revelation of the first.

Easy Salmorejo Adapted from Thremomix cookbook,  Thermomix – un nuevo amanecer

This recipe is all about minimal fuss – you roughly chop  the ingredients, and then let technology take over. Many salmorejo recipes I have come across call for peeling and/or seeding the tomatoes, which I’m sure is delicious, too, but really isn’t necessary if you have a powerful kitchen machine (while there may not be anything out there as mighty as the Thermomix, as I wrote in my last post, a good blender or food processor will work, too).

2 cloves garlic, quartered

2  pounds very ripe and very red tomatoes, halved if they are small, quartered if they are medium or large

1 small (or 1/2 large) red pepper, cored,  seeded and chopped into large chunks

3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

3 cups cubed or torn country bread, crusts removed

1 1/2 tablespoons sherry or wine vinegar, plus more, to taste

1/2 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil

For the garnishes:

4 hard-boiled eggs, diced

3 1/2 ounces (100 g) serrano ham or prosciutto, diced if the slices are thick, sliced into thin strips if the slices are thin (optional)

Drop the garlic cloves, tomatoes, red pepper and salt into a powerful blender or food processor and blend until smooth (if all the tomato and pepper does not fit at first, simply add as you go). Then add the bread and the vinegar and, once again, blend until smooth. With the motor running at medium-low speed, gradually pour in the olive oil and whiz until emulsified. Adjust the vinegar, olive oil and/or salt if desired. At this point, the soup should be velvety smooth  (almost foamy) in texture. If it is not, keep blending away.

Pour the salmorejo into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, at least two hours and up to overnight.

Serve garnished with the hard-boiled eggs and diced serrano ham if using.

  • Check out another recipe for salmorejo including almonds in this August article in Bon Appétit – it seems word is getting out!

Kitchen Tool Showdown: KitchenAid vs. Thermomix

Photo by Renata Polli, my sister-in-law

The KitchenAid mixer has long been the kitchen tool of my dreams. My parents received this particular avocado-colored model as a wedding gift in 1969, and it has been a loyal servant in my mother’s kitchen ever since.

This mixer was the sturdy workhorse of my youth, a trusty companion in early baking endeavors – the high-speed beater made churning out my favorite cookies and quick breads a breeze. I can still feel the heft of the KitchenAid as I pull it out of the cabinet in my memory, and can still hear the motor purring and the beater clinking against the sides of the cavernous stainless steel bowl.

I honestly thought I would have my own KitchenAid sooner, but living abroad has temporarily postponed my dream. Not that it’s impossible to have a KitchenAid mixer in Spain, but it’s more expensive and harder to come by than at home in the States. Nonetheless, I clearly envision this iconic American kitchen tool on my Spanish countertop in the future, ideally in a bright, sunny color.

Enter the Thermomix (pronounced ter-mo-MEEKS’), the German-made, do-it-all kitchen machine, which appears to be the wedding gift equivalent of the KitchenAid here in Spain.

Thermomix sales function sort of like Mary Kay – individual representatives, typically women and often quite fervent, give demonstrations for groups in private homes and spread the word among family and friends. The number of converts continues to grow, in spite of the €800-or-so price tag.

This is my kitchen, but it is not my Thermomix. It belongs to my friend Inma, who received it several years back as a housewarming gift from her mother-in-law, a common source for the machine. In the time I have been in Murcia, I have sampled many of Inma’s tasty Thermomix concoctions – rice pudding, gazpacho, salmorejo and lemon and strawberry sorbet, to name a few. She has been telling me for two years that I could borrow the Thermomix any time I wanted, and I finally took her up on the offer.

I felt as though I was entering a cult as I opened the accompanying cookbook, “THERMOMIX – A New Dawn.” This would be an initiation into the modern Spanish kitchen, and a journey into an alternate kitchen tool dream.

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I was a bit skeptical at first, given the place the KitchenAid occupies in my heart – was I being disloyal? But the Thermomix is really a different beast – not so much a mixer as a super food processor, called a “robot” in Spanish. The Thermomix weighs, heats and whizzes foods into impossibly silky purees; it can keep time and knead yeasted doughs and incubate them while they rise. On the cold side, the Thermomix makes ice cream and velvety sorbets, perfect for hot summer days. Am I sounding like a convert yet?

The truth is, the Thermomix makes cooking, particularly anything involving grinding, pureeing or whipping, effortless. Just roughly chop the ingredients, toss them all in and crank up the dial. One container to wash, no elbow grease involved, enticing results.

Now the question is, will I have enough room for both machines on my counter?

Anti-Cucumber Crisis Watermelon Gazpacho

The past few months have been rough on the Spanish cucumber.

It all began with a false accusation. Based on what was later found to be inconclusive evidence, as you’ve likely heard, the Spanish cucumber was charged with causing the deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany. Truckloads of Spanish cucumbers (and other vegetables, too) were turned away at the German border. The nightly news in Spain showed close-ups of rivers of cucumbers falling over the edges of bulldozer shovels into industrial-sized dumpsters. The market languished.

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But wait – another announcement came that it hadn’t been the Spanish cucumber after all. Yet the damage had been done, and Spanish agriculture continues to suffer. The Spanish government has calculated losses so far at €51 million, the amount requested as compensation from the European Union, as reported in this article in El País. The fiasco has been coined, “la crisis del pepino,” the Cucumber Crisis.

Things are looking up, however. According to the same El País article, national consumption of Spanish produce has increased about 10% over the last month. The crisis has spawned a cucumber movement of sorts, with Facebook pages, such as here and here, and a new Spanish cucumber YouTube video genre. Cucumber-based recipes abound on cooking shows and in food blogs. An ice cream shop in Valencia has even started making cucumber ice cream to support the cause.

In addition to this homegrown movement, the government has launched a national advertising campaign with the goal of rebuilding consumer confidence. The slogan: “There are thousands of ways to support our vegetables. Choose yours.” The initiative includes slick ads and even campaign buttons, as you can see in the image below. My favorite reads, “I’m a chard fan.” (Soy fan de la Acelga.) Have you ever seen a more innocent-looking tomato?

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As one Spanish  food blogger noted, the campaign may not be necessary for Spaniards, who were already doing their part to support the nation’s farmers – it could be more effective elsewhere in Europe, where local pride does not come into play. Nonetheless, confidence appears to be returning elsewhere, too, albeit slowly.

I must say, I’ve  rarely felt so good about eating my veggies – slicing into a cucumber has become an altruistic endeavor. If only all crises were so easy, and pleasurable, to resolve.

Watermelon Gazpacho (with cucumbers, of course!)  Adapted from “Fashion” watermelon publicity pamphlet

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While buying cucumbers the other day at my local indoor market, I noticed the “Fashion Watermelon.” More specifically, I noticed the advertisement (*see below) for this new, unfortunately named variety, including recipe suggestions from chef Josué Rodríguez, of  Almería (where much Spanish produce originates, including the maligned cucumbers). I have to say my interest in the pamphlet was at first ironic – I mean, look at the way the models are holding the watermelon – but my satisfaction was real. So here I am doing the publicity – the irony’s on me.

This quick, refreshing summer soup toes the line between savory and sweet. What I really like about it is that all the flavors harmonize, which actually surprised me – I thought it would be much more watermelon-forward, and potentially cloying. But I was intrigued, and rewarded. And most importantly, there’s a lovely cucumber essence in each bite.

For the gazpacho

2 pounds seedless watermelon (without rind) – about 4 cups of 2-inch chunks

1 medium cucumber, peeled and cut into large chunks

1/2 medium red pepper, seeded and cut into large chunks

3 very ripe medium tomatoes, quartered

2 cups cubed white bread, crust removed (I used a baguette.)

1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1/4 cup fragrant extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

For the  garnishes

Finely diced cucumber

Finely diced red pepper

Finely diced spring onion

Good extra-virgin olive oil

Anything else that suits your fancy

Drop the watermelon, cucumber, red pepper and tomatoes  into a food processor or blender and puree. Add the bread and puree some more. Pour in the vinegar, olive oil and season with salt (I started with 1/2 teaspoon) and fresh-ground pepper, and puree again, this time until very smooth (about 2 minutes). Adjust the vinegar, olive oil, salt and/or pepper if desired. The recipe says to strain the soup at this point, but I skipped this step and didn’t miss it. Refrigerate the soup until it is completely chilled, at least 2 hours.

Serve cold, drizzled with olive oil. Place the garnishes in mini dishes to pass around separately at the table.

YIELD: 4-6 servings

Fashion sandía

Morcilla de Verano – Murcia’s Eggplant Caviar

Think Spanish food, and the word vegetarian likely does not come to mind. Yet in Murcia, fabled as the “market garden” of Europe, meatless dishes starring local vegetables abound.

Take morcilla de verano, for example, or summer morcilla, a local tapa of eggplant, onion and garlic slow-cooked in olive oil until sweet and tender, seasoned with oregano and studded with toasted pine nuts.

Morcilla de verano even qualifies as vegan, yet you won’t find it labeled as such on a menu. Traditionally, vegetable-based dishes here were not so much a matter of dietary choice as they were of necessity, forming the cornerstone of local cuisine. The variety of rich, flavorful vegetable dishes in Murcia today reflects generations of ingenuity with the ingredients at hand.

In fact, many grandparents in Murcia refer to this meatless eggplant dish as morcilla de guerra, wartime morcilla. As the name suggests, this was considered a substitute for the other morcilla — a  pork blood sausage — during lean times. Or during the summer – in the past, morcilla was made in the fall, just after the slaughter. (Murcia’s meat morcilla, like the eggplant version, is flavored with onions, oregano and pine nuts.)

Today, morcilla is available year-round, yet morcilla de verano remains a popular dish, one of many traditional vegetable-based tapas served up in bars throughout Murcia, whose cuisine has been shaped by the market garden harvest.

Morcilla de Verano – Murcia’s Eggplant Caviar

This olive oil-rich recipe is nothing short of unctuous, perfect for slathering on a thick slice of country bread. Serve as an appetizer or as a light meal accompanied with a salad and a plate of sliced manchego cheese.

3 medium eggplants, peeled and diced into ½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 medium onions, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

Soak diced eggplant in a bowl of salted water for ½ hour to temper any bitterness. Drain and pat dry.

Meanwhile, lightly toast pine nuts in a dry sauté pan over medium-high heat.

Heat oil in a deep sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to turn golden. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Toss in eggplant, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and reduce heat to low. Cook partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is thoroughly tender, about 45 minutes. Drain any excess oil, then stir in oregano and toasted pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

YIELD: 4-6 servings